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ACT announces adjustments to the Writing Test

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Like chess players moving carefully around the board, the ACT responded yesterday to College Board plans to revise the Writing section of the SAT by announcing a few minor adjustments of its own.

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In a cautiously worded news release, the ACT describes changes starting in 2015 as “designed to improve readiness and help students plan for the future in areas important to success after high school.” And as one part of the plan, the ACT proposes to tweak the optional Writing Test in small—possibly unnoticeable—ways.

“Change to the ACT is nothing new,” said Jed Applerouth, founder and CEO of Applerouth Tutoring Services. “The ACT generally tends to move discretely, incrementally, and without fanfare. The College Board typically gets itself into hot water with its well-publicized test overhauls.”

Currently the prompt for the 30-minute ACT Writing Test probes an issue relevant to high school students and asks test-takers to write about their perspective on the issue presented. Students may choose to support one of two positions or they are free to develop a response based on their own ideas.

The example provided on the ACT website asks test-takers to respond to proposals to extend high school to five years. Other ACT writing prompts asked whether high school students should be required to wear uniforms or whether students should be allowed to select the books they read for English class.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new ACT prompts will be more “nuanced.”

“It won’t be ‘this side or that side,’” explained Edward R. Colby, a spokesperson for the ACT, in an interview with the Chronicle. “The question will ask students for multiple perspectives and support. It will be a more-complex prompt than what we’re delivering now.”

Student essays will then be evaluated in four areas of writing competency: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use. The test will measure ability to assess positions on a complex issue and generate their own analysis based on “reasoning, knowledge, and experience.”

While the 1-to-36 scoring scale will remain the same, students will be provided with an English Language Arts Score which will combine achievement on the English, reading, and writing portions of the ACT for those who take all three test sections.

These relatively minor adjustments in the ACT, set to be implemented a year earlier than modifications planned for the SAT, appear designed to counter the College Board’s upgraded and enhanced writing assignment scheduled to go on line in spring of 2016.

In the new “optional” SAT Essay section, which may grow to be as long as 50 minutes, students will be asked to analyze a “founding document” to determine how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience through the use of evidence and reasoning.

“The College Board trumped the ACT Inc., with its much improved and more rigorous essay,” explained Applerouth. “The ACT always required students to address multiple perspectives on an argument but will now increase the difficulty level of the topics. This will push students to a higher level of analysis, in an effort to keep up with the new SAT.”

While the College Board has been largely playing a reactive game by implementing changes designed to make it increasingly similar to the ACT, the folks in Iowa continue to gobble up market share by taking over additional state-wide assessment programs in Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin. A total of 17 states will now require all high school juniors in public schools to take the ACT before graduation, which is bound to increase its popularity for college admissions decisions.

And the ACT has the jump on the SAT when it comes to technology. The digital ACT has already been administered in sections of the country and will be offered as an option to select schools participating in state and district testing starting in 2015.

“The two testing giants are scrutinizing each other’s competitive moves,” concluded Applerouth. “These two players are locked in a competitive dance, one leading to a greater degree of convergence than we have hitherto seen.”

But at the end of the day, students who will be immediately affected by these changes should keep in mind that an impressive number of colleges are test-optional and most don’t even require the optional Writing section of the ACT.

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